38: Goblin Driver 4 – Lunch

I thought ‘Over lunch’ would mean the on-base cafeteria where we eat on duty, but it turned out the ‘Road Kings’ had touched ground only an hour before the briefing. They craved fresh air after breathing recycled oxygen for three weeks, and they wouldn’t get that at Gulf Base Three. So once we finished, we changed into civilian clothes and headed into town.

Berenice, Texas isn’t exactly the vacation capital of the Gulf Coast. It might even have competition for the vacation capital of Calvin County. It does have some decent burger places though, and according to Martins, when one gets to Earth after a couple months of long-range patrol, a good burger is as grand as filet mignon.

We stopped at a place Martins knew– even though I hadn’t met them before, it seems the 54th often uses Berenice for shore leave– and once we had our food, she pulled out her laptop so we could gab about folds, currents and durations as we ate.

Red and Farley had no interest in interstellar navigation, and the other three pilots had their minds on everything else, so the conversation split. My ‘half’ was the teen Goblin driver and the senior fighter jock. The division felt a bit weird to me, as I was the youngest present and Martins was my mother’s age.

I know I mentioned that the front line wasn’t a clear-cut location, but our mission would take us to where the battle lines became literal, a contested system toward the other side of the marginal zone. Thanks to recent shifts in the line, it had fallen farther into Enemy space and although the Allies still controlled most of the ground on the part of the planet where we were heading and were still trying to push the line back, it was becoming increasingly likely we would have to pull out. Getting to this destination meant we would, for most of our journey, navigate disputed space under risk of attack. This would be by far the longest time spent in dangerous space of any mission I had ever flown.

Maybe I still didn’t want to look at the bad news on the laptop screen, or maybe I wanted to alert Red to the situation as soon as possible, but I kept finding myself looking off her direction. Surrounded by three male pilots, she occupied the center of attention. Lt. Delaney showed more than a little amusement at her squadron mates; she glanced Martins’ way and rolled her eyes several times.

I could have told the lieutenant it had been inevitable. Most guys turn very stupid around Red. She’s attractive, and she has a sunny laugh, a bright smile and nice curves, and she hides her tomboy nature once she’s out of uniform. Guys gravitate toward her, pretty much on autopilot.

Normally she ignores the flirting so completely that I thought she didn’t notice the interest she received, but this time, she seemed to be flirting back with Chief Farley. Maybe it was the British accent, or maybe the fact he actually stood a bit taller than her, unlike most guys, but… well, I actually got a little jealous.

I knew darned well I had no claim on her, and I never suffered any delusions that a shrimp like me stood any chance with her. Red was my plugger, my shipmate, not my girl. These feelings were confusing the crap out of me.

“Something wrong?” Martins probed. I pushed my attention back over to her.

“Sorry. I’m… still a little uneasy about how deep we’re planning to run on the way there.”

In her eyes, I could tell she knew the real reason was Red, but she nodded in understanding. “You haven’t been on a mission this far out before, have you?”

“What’s the matter, Senior? More heat than you can handle?” Somehow, Farley had jumped over to our discussion. I don’t know how he’d been able to follow us from the middle of the other conversation, but here he was.

I found Red’s eyes on me too, and then discovered I had just become the center of attention for the entire table. I felt the back of my neck heating up. “No, it’s not like that. I just…”

He shook his head. “Seems like too much responsibility for a young bloke like you. It doesn’t makes sense to me. There’s more chaps can handle that tub, and it’s more the ship they need, than you. They oughta be giving you to the new Argo that’s replacing it, instead. Two years flying, you’ve earned a new ship after all.”

The burning had turned red hot. I scowled and and my voice began, “Now hang on just a minute…”

“Cody!” came a call from the front of place. Jay Philips, my classmate from school, had just spotted me from the counter. He headed over, his girl Kayli in tow.

“Espees,” Red warned, just loud enough for the table, letting everyone know, No ESDF Talk. Martins discreetly closed her nav program and brought up a spreadsheet instead, acting like she was working on some ordinary business task.

I’ve heard that in the US Navy, SP means ‘Shore Patrol’. Military police, in other words. In the ESDF, we call our military police PCs, ‘Port Constables’. For us, SP or Espee means ‘Surface Population’. In this case, it meant my schoolmates Jay and Kayli.

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“Hey, Dude, I thought you were off working for Red’s Dad?” Jay boomed out, pulling a chair out from the next table over and putting their sodas down. That was our usual cover story for the long missions we run in Mo. Kayli parked her purse and sat while he found another, and my embarrassment grew. First, Farley was questioning my courage, and before I could refute that, I looked like the reason we had civilian ears around to kill the shop talk.

Even though it was a lie. Jay was no close friend. Popular guys like him don’t hang out with loners like me. If Red wasn’t there, he wouldn’t even have noticed me. He was using me as an excuse to show off his new girlfriend to his ex. Even though Red probably couldn’t give a flip.

“These guys are from a geology firm he’s partnering with,” I fibbed. It was the cover we’d already agreed on, during the trip into town. You get into the habit of cooking these up in advance when you live in an espee town. “We had some time off, and they wanted to catch a good burger. Red and I brought ’em.”

“Huh,” he nodded. “I thought you were gonna be away a few days?”

“Change of plans.” That was the truth, after all. When we reported for duty, Red and I had expected to head out on a personnel rotation mission like we always did, but now we would be waiting five days for Mo to get her refit. “He doesn’t need us until next week, but instead, we’re heading clear down to Mexico. I may be gone a couple weeks or more.”

“No way! How’d you get the cool summer job? Red, tell your Dad to hire me, instead. I can handle a boat too, and I’m better looking.”

Jay believed I worked for Red’s father’s offshore oil services outfit. The business exists, but of course, in reality it was one of the many cover operations around town that provided fake employment to people who actually worked in space or at the base full-time. Red’s dad had retired from the Surface Corps, and was actually a big shot in the Security Ministry, one of the civilian branches of the ESDF.

“Sorry, Jay,” Red smiled sweetly. “Dad likes Cody. This is the third summer running he’s worked for us, you know.”

“And I mow a golf course,” Jay complained. “Life ain’t fair.”

We cleared out of there as soon as everyone finished eating, since all we could talk about with other ears present was the local fishing, (that was mostly the two guys from the Road Kings, apparently big fly-fishing fans. The salt flats in our area are a popular area to fly-fish for speckled trout) and video games (a subject that involved a few more of us.) While we’d piled into the van that Martins had scrounged from the motor pool, she asked, “Can we borrow your place to finish up, Captain?”

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“My place?”

“I thought I might say hi to my old mate Beth,” she smiled as she started the engine. Beth is my mom’s name. “I haven’t seen her in a couple years.”

“Oh… I didn’t know you knew her. She’s at space right now, ma’am.” I don’t know why I felt like I was letting her down. It wasn’t my fault Mom wasn’t home.

Martins looked surprised. “She’s back on active duty? She insisted she was finished with fighters.”

“She joined Battle Fleet. She’s now sail master on Battlecruiser Drake.”

She gave a low whistle. “That’s a nice gig. Well, space does get into your blood.”

Red chimed in, “We should use my house. Mum won’t mind. Cap’s got this espee neighbor who watches him like a hawk because he’s home alone all the time. I can’t be in the place five minutes without her banging on the door and inviting herself in.”

I listened silently as Farley and the Road Kings got back into their video game chatter, Red navigated for Martins, and Berenice rolled by. I would have said okay to using my house. Our neighbor would probably have accepted a group of responsible-looking adults, one of them Mom’s friend, as sufficient chaperons. But once again my age had got onto the table. I’m not sure why, but it had kept me from responding.

- my thoughts:

First glimpse at the interaction between ESDF personnel and the rest of us.

Check out my other novel: Substitute Hero

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